Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Laws, law breaking and the death of an infant

There is always a lot more going on than can be mentioned in these blogs. Today, three issues reached a moment of focus, revealing different aspects of the campaign to protect infant health and mothers' rights.

In the early hours of this morning an article from George Monbiot on baby food marketing in the UK went live on The Guardian website. Some hours later, the comment function went live and I was able to leave the first of them. The article examines the idealizing claims made by baby food companies in the UK, corporate efforts to oppose strong legislation and the failure of the government to act. Though we are looking forward to action in the coming months. You can read the article at:

The comments are revealing of the emotions raised by this issue. The focus is on corporate malpractice and the government's failure to act, but the discussion quickly moves to breastfeeding v. formula feeding. I responded to one comment myself as follows:

Barryinsweden wrote: "I remember the good old days when us liberals thought a woman had the right to decide what she did with her body without being told what was best for her by interfering men who couldn't possibly understand what they were talking about. Not any more apparently."

I don't understand what you are saying Barry. The article is suggesting that baby food companies should abide by the labelling requirements and stop making idealizing and misleading claims on formula labels. In other words, comply with the law.

That is not an unreasonable request. Nor is it forcing women to do one thing or another.

The article is also calling for the government to meet its obligations and implement the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which was adopted by the world's health ministries.

Remember the Code is there to protect breastfeeding AND to ensure breastmilk substitutes are used safely if needed. As it says in the preamble: "in view of the vulnerability of infants in the early months of life and the risks involved in inappropriate feeding practices, including the unnecessary and improper use of breastmilk substitutes, the marketing of breastmilk substitutes requires special treatment, which makes usual marketing practices unsuitable for these products."

So it is perfectly reasonable to call the head of Milupa/ Cow&Gate (Mr. Jan Bennick), Heinz (Mr. William Johnson), Hipp (Mr. Klaus Hipp), Wyeth/SMA (Mr. Rober Essner) - all men, incidently - to stop their aggressive marketing practices. The Code calls on governments to implement and monitor it and Non-Governmental Organisations - such as Baby Milk Action - to report violations. Companies are limited to providing health workers with scientific and factual information on their products and it is for health workers to advise mothers.

The claims companies make are at best idealizing, but more often, misleading. A review of the research on LCPs shows the claims about development benefits are not substantiated. Cow & Gate's claims about prebiotics have a ruling against them from the Advertising Standards Authority. See:

The Food Standards Agency has written to the companies telling them to abide by the law and change their labels. They continue to use prohibited claims.

If a mother has accurate information and good support then she can make an informed decision about how to feed her infant and no-one can make her feel guilty for evaluating her situation and deciding what is best for her and her child. But if she is misinformed, if she does not have support when she needs, then WE are guilty for failing her.

Corporations like to attack those reminding them of their responsibilities as if they are dictating to women. Let us keep clarity. We are talking holding some of the most powerful corporations in the world to account. We are talking about holding our government to account. And men and woman have the right and responsibility to do so.

Over 10,000 km away in the Philippines today, the Supreme Court has been receiving oral testimony from the pharmaceutical industry and health advocates on the marketing regulations introduced by the Ministry of Health last year. Following pressure on the President from the US Chamber of Commerce, the Supreme Court suspended the regulations. It remains to be seen whether the Judges review of the evidence will convince them of the rightness of the case for protecting infant health and implementing the World Health Assembly marketing requirements.

But the fact is that efforts to ensure mothers receive accurate information and support, does not take place in a vacuum. Companies go to the limits of the regulations and beyond to promote their products and use all sorts of tactics to weaken them. Case studies from 7 countries we published in 2004 show how this is true in countries that now have exemplary regulations, such as Brazil and India, just as it is true in those countries where industry pressure for weaker measures has won out, such as Kenya and Bolivia (Bolivia has introduced regulations since the report). See:

One of the things we work for are improved warnings on formula labels and clearer instructions so carers can reduce the risks of possible intrinsic contamination from pathogens such as Enterobacter Sakazakii. You can read more about that particular problem at:

The industry is refusing to change labels voluntarily and is lobbying against changes being introduced at the Code Alimentarius Commission. Why? Because it does not want to undermine the impression that formula is the same or almost the same as breastfeeding.

Parents who would have appreciated that information went to court in Belgium today. They are taking legal action against Nestlé and the hospital where their child was born and put onto Beba infant formula. The child developed and died from meningitis at 5 days old in 2002. This was linked to Enterobacter Sakazakii contamination of the formula, which was subsequently recalled from some of the countries where it was on sale. See:

We talk about laws, but we are really concerned about parents and their children.

1 comment:

barbara said...

Well done, Mike for getting this issue into the mainstream! The Guardian article is being widely applauded in breastfeeding circles all over the country and no doubt further afield too.
Emotions will always run high and go back to bf v ff, guilt and choice concerns because not establishing breastfeeding is a very big deal.
It was wonderful to see the article - in the past the press has given the issue little prominence.